The most popular arguments I’ve heard against the casting of Peter Capaldi:
1. Too old.
2. Too white.
3. Too male.
4. Too ugly.
5. Never heard of him.
6. He’s already been in it.
To which I believe we may appropriately respond with this –
I was going to leave it there, but that would be silly.
Being out of the loop has its benefits. It was only thanks to a chance encounter in a Pembrokeshire swimming pool that I found out about the half-hour special. And I’m glad I was away, partly because I had next to no time to work myself into a frenzy of excitement that would have inevitably led to a colossal letdown even if they’d cast, say, Rik Mayall (who I’ve always felt deserved a shot), and partly because if I’d been here I’d have watched it, and been bored stiff by the interviews and soundbites and Zoe Ball’s second-rate master of ceremonies skills. Instead I followed a real-time newspaper feed, and then panicked when it looked like it really might be Aneurin Barnard (no offence, Aneurin, I just don’t think you’re ripe enough), and then breathed a huge sigh of relief.
As far as I am aware there is no comprehensive poll as to whether the casting of Capaldi (who emerged as a late favourite) was ‘approved’ or not. As such any press ramblings you read will tip the balance either in his favour (the Mirror) or against him (the Mail). Certainly I’ve read as many anti-Capaldi comments as I have pro-ones, typically from those who are appalled at the transition from dashing thirty-something to dashing twenty-something to middle aged voice of experience. A friend of mine commented on her Facebook timeline that she hoped he didn’t last too long, as “he ain’t too easy on the eyes”. Others remark that he’s too old – at fifty-five, the oldest casting since Hartnell. Other commentators, such as the Guardian’s Jenny Colgan, have damned the show’s creators with faint praise, begrudgingly accepting that “if we must have a white male, I’m glad it’s him”, in an article that gets so many other things wrong I don’t know where to start deconstructing it.
It would be very easy to sneer at the younger fans, but to single them out is to apply the same standard of generalisation that some of them apply to Doctor Who. It’s probably fair to say that most of the age remarks come from younger fans of the show, and most of the aesthetic critique from women, or gay men. But just because those who complain about the new Doctor’s appearance are young fans, it does not follow that all young fans behave in this way, and we should be wary of tarring them all with the same brush. There are people in their twenties who know more about the show and its history than I could ever hope to, and there are people in their sixties who experienced it for the first time in 2005. Age does not automatically beget experience; it merely allows for its potential accumulation.
Those who complain about Capaldi’s previous role in the show, of course, entirely miss the point. (Gareth mentioned that in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ he tried to buy the TARDIS, which was a nifty piece of presumably unintentional foreshadowing.) The act of bringing back previous actors to play different (sometimes related) roles is hardly new to New Who; Karen Gillan (in this very same episode), Bernard Cribbins and Freema Agyeman have all landed regular spots on the show after earlier, smaller parts. Bringing back a previously appearing actor to play the titular role is unusual but not unheard of: Colin Baker did it back in the 1980s, and in a less obvious example, a 2003 Big Finish drama stars David Warner as an alternative incarnation of the Third Doctor, encountering the Master in 1997 Hong Kong and crossing swords with an antagonistic UNIT colonel who sounds an awful lot like David Tennant.
As for me? I’m thrilled. I have already written about why I felt the Doctor should remain a white male, so we won’t go into that. The casting of Capaldi was a masterstroke, but then I never expected the production team to let me down. I have ranted about Moffat in here more times than I’d care to admit, but if there’s one thing I’ll say for the man it’s that he knows how to cast a lead. Coleman, Smith, Gillan and Darvill have all impressed me – at least before two of them descended into bland caricatures of their previous selves, and even then that’s hardly the fault of the actors – and I’ve been burned before when it comes to making predictions about who’s going to work in the title role. Suffice to say that there have been eleven official Doctors, and every one of them has their merits. You may enjoy the stories of one more than others, but the Doctor who is not to your taste will be the firm favourite of someone else (with the possible exception of Colin Baker, but again that’s hardly his fault, as the audio dramas – in which he excels – later proved).
If ‘Pompeii’ saw Capaldi provide a competent rendering of a generally rather dull character, it was his role in Torchwood the following year that saw his finest brush with the Whoniverse. I’ve written about that elsewhere, but if nothing else it cements his role as a versatile performer – John Frobisher is a world away from the sneering, foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, the role for which he will arguably be most remembered besides the Doctor. I’ve not seen The Thick of It (and yes, I know I’m missing out), but I gather it foreshadowed the Levinson report with uncanny precision. And I did see him in The Nativity, and he was quite good in that. Still, he’s not acting here:
It’s lovely, really. The look on his face is tentative and hesitant, as if he’s really not sure whether the audience will approve. You can almost see the relief seeping in.
When I mentioned Malcolm Tucker to Gareth, I added that he “swears a lot”. “This is all I ever hear about that role,” came the response. “That he’s foul-mouthed, swears a lot, etc, etc. Nothing else – nothing about whether he’s any good at acting, or what that character is apart from that.” This is a fair comment – Tucker’s use of language is the talking point in every article that mentions him, with jokes about making the TARDIS ‘bluer than ever’ providing convenient headlines, and providing the source material for several YouTube videos and a Guardian article. On the other hand, you don’t amass a CV like Capaldi’s – over thirty years of work, including an Academy Award – without it being taken as read that you have some kind of thespian talent. It’s far easier to question the acting abilities of, say, Harry Styles, who is young and pretty. Wrinkly older people, it seems, can act just fine, unless they’re Marlon Brando (who could act, but frequently chose to simply mumble).
There’s also the question of the Doctor’s relationship with River, whom it seems we must have back in some capacity, because she’s Moffat’s creation and he loves her even if I do not. (And if you thought we’d seen the last of Professor Song in the series finale, I fear you may have a lot to learn about the Whoniverse’s tendency to bring people back from the dead.) But if nothing else, the casting of Capaldi has the potential to throw a whole new dynamic on the Doctor’s are-they / aren’t-they / do-we-really-want-to-be-talking-about-this-anyway implied romance with the curly-haired man-eater. Part (although only a small part) of the problem with River is that the Kingston / Smith pairing has never worked – they simply don’t gel. He looks (and I’ve probably said this) like he’s trying to chat up his best mate’s mum. I know it sounds horribly ageist, but there it is.
Bad timing was part of it: Kingston was originally hired to work with Tennant, and then Moffat took over and wanted to bring her back, and then they cast Smith (presumably without doing a screen test), and they were stuck with that dynamic. A recurring Kingston / Tennant pairing would have been interesting to watch, insofar as I have ever found River interesting, and it certainly would have seemed less awkward. Similarly, pairing her against an actor who’s closer to her physical age might improve the onscreen chemistry (any chemistry at all would be a step up). It doesn’t solve the other problems like River being generally irritating and her stories mind-numbingly tedious, but it would be a marginal improvement, and I’ll take what I can get.
‘Take what you can get’ seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to Who these days. There is still the question of Capaldi’s accent, which will probably be English with an Oxford lilt, as opposed to Tennant’s estuary English. (I imagine him sounding like a deputy headmaster, insofar as it’s possible to ever really imagine what a deputy headmaster sounds like.) Then there’s the question of what he actually does with the role – or more specifically, what he’s allowed to do. As a Facebook friend of mine put it, “I think they really need to embrace a change of tone here. Moffat wasn’t a very sure hand on the head writing last time around and poor Matt’s character seemed to change from episode to episode and even scene to scene. A more dashing and driven Prof Quatermass / Pertwee kind of Doctor against a somewhat less wacky world(s) could become the kind of action adventure show that might refresh the falling audiences and still make the kids happy. But if PC ends up clowning and talking in non-sequiteurs…”
I share his concerns, but it’s early days; we’ve not even had the regeneration scene yet. Nonetheless, good news all round, especially for Capaldi. I couldn’t be happier. Well, except if they’d cast Rik Mayall. But you can’t have everything.